How to help your pet with separation anxiety

Your buddy misses you when you're gone, so let them know you're coming back.

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Ever wish you could peer into your cat, dog, skink, or betta fish’s brain? It would give you a far better perspective of the worldor at least help you be a smarter pet parent. We’re here to demystify your animals (to some extent), while also shedding advice on how you can best thrive together. Welcome to Pet Psychic.

For the past couple of months, our pets have become our coworkers, confidants, and constant companions. With social distancing still going strong in many states, we’ve been spending a lot of time inside on our couch with our pets curled up next to us, providing adorable distractions all day long.

For better or for worse, though, governments have started opening up communities across the country. Soon, we’ll be headed back to our offices, and our pups, kitties, and other animals will no longer have our undivided attention day in and out.

What do we do to start getting our fluffy, feathered, or scaly buddies ready for more and more alone time? Here are a few tips from animal experts on readjusting to schedules that don’t include 24/7 cuddles.

Look for warning signs

You’ve probably heard about pet separation anxiety, but what does it actually look like? Some signs would be your dog or cat exhibiting destructive behaviors after you leave home, like pacing, vocalizing, trembling, or even relieving itself on the carpet.

Separation anxiety isn’t the only kind of stress that a pet might go through as you get busy again. General anxiety due to change is also common, says Rebecca Ruch-Gallie, a veterinarian at Colorado State University’s veterinary teaching hospital: Pacing, lip licking, salivating, and a flat or sunken body posture can all be clues.

Your furry buddies might not express these behaviors while you’re around, but you can keep a watchful eye on them with a well-placed camera. If you spot something surprising on the feed, share the clip with your vet.

“We’ve been able to diagnose many pets from a video that just bark a little bit right when their owners have left, and then they just do not settle,” says Margaret Gruen, a professor of behavioral medicine at NC State University’s vet school.

It’s especially important to look out for these behaviors if you’ve just adopted a shelter animal. One of the most positive things to come out of shutdowns is that more and more people have opened their hearts and homes to new furry friends. But shelter animals are more likely to have anxiety, period, says Sara Bennett, a professor of behavioral medicine at NC State University’s vet school. If they’ve entered your life in a time where you can shower love on them all day and things suddenly change, you’ll want to be extra vigilant in watching for symptoms of stress.

It’s also super important to remember that whether it’s a destroyed couch or a pile of poop on the floor, your pet isn’t trying to get back at you for leaving them, says Leanne Lilley, a vet and professor of behavioral medicine at Ohio State. Your kitty or pup probably unsafe or panicked, and that’s why they are acting out. So, try your best not to get angry with them, no matter how irritating they can be.

“Vaccinate” your pet against missing you

Since the shutdowns began, many of our schedules have gone to the wayside. We’ve traded our work clothes for all-day sweatpants, and happy hour starts the second the laptop closes. That’s all fine and dandy, but a lack of a schedule can be confusing for our animals, especially when they usually have free reign of the house from 9 to 5 every day.

Some ways to start getting your pets back into the swing of things is by “vaccinating” them to being attached to your hip, says Katherine Houpt, an animal behavior expert and veterinarian at Cornell. With a dog, use a sit and stay command and then step away to see if they can resist chasing you down. If they obey and seem comfortable, there’s a good chance your pup will survive the day without you.

Another way to ease your pet into the situation is by stepping out your front door for a few minutes and then coming back in. If you keep upping the time of the experiment, your dog or cat will eventually realize that no matter how long you leave for, you’re always going to come back and be excited to see them.

You can also help get your pets back on schedule by running errands around when you’d leave the house for work, instead of some random point in the day. If you’re generally out of the house for the day by 9 a.m., let’s say, try and make your grocery run then (even if that means getting out of your pajamas before noon).

Make sure you’re not the only source of fun

We love our pets a whole lot—but we we have other relationships and commitments in our lives. For our pets, on the other hand, they pretty much just have us. They aren’t texting their litter mates to catch up and swiping around on the furry equivalent of Bumble. No pressure, but you’re pretty much your cat or dog’s world.

That makes leaving them behind to head to the office all the rougher. Luckily, dogs don’t need much to be entertained. Fill up a kong toy or use a puzzle feeder to keep the entertainment going while you’re outside of the home. A timed kibble dispenser can also help your pet learn that you aren’t the patron saint of food.

“You become not so much the sole caretaker in the world,” Ruch-Gallie says. She also suggests leaving around special toys and snacks for when you leave, so that your cat or dog associates something positive with that alone time.

Keep up the fun things you did during shutdowns

If you’ve been taking your dog on longer, more frequent romps in the past few months, you’re not alone. It’s become a highlight in many pet owners’—and pets’—days.

Continue this new tradition of leisurely strolls filled with sniffing, socializing, and observing as life picks up again. Not only is getting out and about good for your health, it also does wonders for your dog’s welfare, Gruen says.

In this time of getting to know your animal better, you might also realize that you don’t need to crate them all day when you’re at work, Gruen says. Let them roam around in a room with some kind of monitoring system in place. “Maybe we can make some changes for the better,” Gruen adds.

If nothing else, the pandemic has likely showed you how your pet reacts to your presence. Don’t forget how much your animal loves you and is excited to share time with you, whether it’s all day or after work for a different kind of happy hour.

Sara Kiley Watson

Sara Kiley WatsonSara Kiley Watson is an assistant editor at PopSci. Her work has also been featured in NPR and Business Insider. Contact the author here.